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Tom Jones Remembers When Audiences Threw Underwear And Room Keys At Him

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, singer Tom Jones. The Welsh singer started his career with a bang in 1965 with the hits "It's Not Unusual" and "What's New Pussycat?" He quickly became a pop star and a sex symbol. The hits kept coming through the early '70s, including "Thunderball," "Green Green Grass Of Home," "Delilah" and "She's A Lady." Now, at the age of 80, he has a new album, titled "Surrounded By Time." It entered the official U.K. albums chart in the No. 1 spot. It's Tom Jones' 41st studio album. Here's a track from it, "Pop Star."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POP STAR")

TOM JONES: (Singing) Yes, I'm going to be a pop star. Yes, I'm going to be a pop star now. Yes, I'm going to be a pop star. Oh, Mama, Mama, see me. Mama, Mama, see me. I'm a pop star.

BIANCULLI: Tom Jones has collaborated with many artists over his long career. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was knighted by the Queen. He's been a coach on the British version of "The Voice." And when Terry talked with him in 2003, Tom Jones had just released his album "Reloaded" in the U.S., which featured him in collaboration with Van Morrison and The Cardigans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: One of the things you're famous for now is your sexy image, right? That's one of the things you became famous for when you became a star. But I think when you started performing music, it was mostly in pubs to audiences of men.

JONES: Well, both. It was - I sang in pubs, which was mixed, you know? But then sometimes on a Saturday night in a working men's club, you would have - some of these clubs were men-only. When I started, I wasn't really aware of the the sexual part of it except for the songs themselves, you know? But I was up there singing.

And then, you know, when I sang to mixed audiences and I started singing in the YMCA to younger people, you know, the - because of the nature of the songs that I was singing, the sex part, you know, came along with it exactly the same as - not exactly the same but the same kind of thing that Elvis Presley did. You know, he was singing certain kinds of songs, and he was moving along with the songs. Before that, you know, when people moved, maybe the songs weren't the same, you know? It was because of the rock and roll music that sort of generated that sex appeal, I think.

GROSS: So what were you singing in the pubs on Saturday nights just to working men?

JONES: Well, you know, in Wales, they like big voices. So I would be singing ballads - you know, Frankie Laine, you know, type songs and - you know, like that and then some - you know, some Welsh songs as well. There were some songs in ways that - you know, the Welsh songs that I would sing. But I was always, you know, more influenced by American music. So it would be pop songs of the day.

GROSS: Right.

JONES: You know? You know?

GROSS: Let's jump ahead a little bit to when you got your first record contract and you started recording. Let's talk about your first hit, "It's Not Unusual." And this kind of really sets the style for you - like, you know, lots of brass, a big arrangement. And this is the era when we're talking about The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. This is 1965. In America, it was, like, the height of the British invasion. You know, Herman's Hermits, The Rolling Stones, Petula Clark, The Beatles are all on the hits along with Motown. And you're coming along and doing this, like, really kind of brassy - it's not a guitar band. It's not a band of songwriters. Did you feel like you were going to be, like, sticking out like a sore thumb in a way doing something really different?

JONES: No. What was happening was when my - the guy that was recording me, Peter Sullivan - when he saw me in a club in Wales, he was looking for more rock material because I was singing - you know, the band that I had then were three guitars and drums - you know, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar and drums. So I was singing more rock tunes, '50s rock tunes - you know, Jerry Lee Lewis things and Little Richard and Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and all that kind of - Elvis Presley, of course. So that's the kind of stuff that I was doing.

Later, I was doing demonstration records for other singers because my manager was also a songwriter. So I would be doing demos for this music publishing company. And one day I did this song called "It's Not Unusual," which my manager wrote for a girl called Sandy Shore, who was having hits in England at the time. So when I heard it played back, I said, Gordon, you know, this - Gordon Mills, the man's name was. I said, this is - you know, this sounds like a hit to me. He said, yeah, but it's not rock enough for you. You know, it's not - it's a pop song. It's a mild song.

So Peter Sullivan, my recording manager, said, look. If you're going to do this song, we've got to beef it up. We have to make it hotter than the song really calls for, you know, because it was more like a sort of a Brasil '66 type tune. So Peter said, what about brass? What if we put some brass in it? We need to beef it up because you're singing it - you know, you're singing it aggressively. We need the arrangement to complement that. So then Les Reed, who did the arrangement and co-wrote the song, put the brass on it. And that's - you know, the brass just played along to the Baiao beat that the bass drum was doing. So it made it more of an aggressive record because of my style of singing.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear it? This is Tom Jones' first big hit, "It's Not Unusual."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S NOT UNUSUAL")

JONES: (Singing) It's not unusual to be loved by anyone. It's not unusual to have fun with anyone. But when I see you hanging about with anyone, it's not unusual to see me cry. I want to die. It's not unusual to go out at any time. But when I see you out and about, it's such a crime. If you should ever want to be loved by anyone, it's not unusual. It happens every day, no matter what you say. You'll find it happens all the time. Love will never do what you want it to. Why can't this crazy love be mine?

GROSS: OK, so that was your first big hit. And how did you go about creating the image to go along with that? When did the bump-and-grind pelvis stuff start coming in?

JONES: Well, that was - you know, that was always there because of singing rock tunes in the '50s in clubs and pubs and, you know, dance halls. That just came along with it. You know, I was moving because I just felt like it. It wasn't a plan, you know? I didn't plan it. I was just - and I love to dance. You know, I used to go to dance halls, and I thought, if I could do this on stage - you know, it makes you more relaxed anyway because if you grab the microphone with both hands, you know, like a lot of kids do when they first start singing, you're nervous when you're up there. So if you can loosen up, it makes it a lot easier. So that movement came because I wanted to feel more relaxed, more natural on stage. So that's how that all came around.

GROSS: Did you ask yourself at the time, like, in the mid-'60s, how you thought your kind of sex appeal compared to, say, Mick Jagger's or Paul McCartney's or John Lennon's? - you know, because you were recording at the same time. I think your audiences were a little different.

JONES: No, the audiences weren't that different. It was just - I was appealing to a wider range of people. You know, like, in Wales, for instance, on a Friday night, I would sing in a YMCA, you know, to young teenagers, you know, very young teenagers. And then on a Saturday night, I would be singing in a working man's club to adults. As - when the Rolling Stones first hit, I was singing in a club in London, and they played that same club. Well, normally I would be singing to people in their 20s and sometimes in their 30s, you know? But when the Stones played there, a lot of these kids came in - you know, very young teenagers.

So it's just that I played to a wider variety of people than maybe the Stones or The Beatles. And, you know, the movements - I mean, Mick Jagger was moving because he saw Black people move in the states. And he was trying to do something similar, you know? And when he did it, it came out the way, you know, that he moves. And when I did it, it came out the way that I move. It's just a different take on what we were looking at and what we were listening to.

GROSS: One of the things that apparently always happens at your concerts is that there are some women who throw their panties at you, throw them onto the stage. Do you remember the very first time that happened?

JONES: Yeah. It was in the Copacabana in New York in 1968. It was a supper club. And the singer is on the same - the stage - the band is on the stage. But the singer is on the dance floor, which is at - and all these tables - you know, tables and chairs all around you with the people. And I was perspiring a lot, so these ladies were handing me table napkins. And then this one woman stood up and took her underwear off and, you know, handed them to me. And it was written up in the newspaper the following day. And that's what started it. And that was in '68, and I went to Vegas the same year. And then the room keys, you know, started because people that are in Vegas are staying in the hotels. And they have, you know, room keys in their handbags or their purses.

So, you know, it was - the stage would be showered with underwear and room keys. So that went on for quite a while. But, you know, when it first started, it was very sexy because I don't think any woman had ever thrown underwear at a singer before. I don't think it ever happened before that or, for that matter, throwing a room key up there, you know? So it was very sexy at the time. But then it - you know, it became a bit of a joke because people would bring underwear, you know, in handbags and just throw them up there because they thought it was the thing to do. So it backfired on me a bit.

GROSS: So when you started to think, like, it was backfiring, what did you - did you do anything to try to stop it?

JONES: Well, I didn't. At the beginning, you know, I would pick them up and play around with them, you know, because you learn that whatever happens on stage, you try to turn it to your advantage and not get thrown by it. So, you know, you'd work with it. You know, and - but after a while, because it became - you know, it was happening so much, I decided not to do it. If they threw them at me, then just let them fall...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: ...Where they will, you know? So that's what's happened now.

BIANCULLI: Tom Jones speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUSTY SPRINGFIELD'S "THE LOOK OF LOVE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with singer Tom Jones. He's now 80 years old and has a new album of material.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I want to play another record, and this is "Delilah." And this is another one of your really, like, big productions - you know, like, big arrangement behind you. And you were, like - you're so passionate in this that you have to murder the woman (laughter), you know?

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: It was a song that was written by Les Reed, who co-wrote "It's Not Unusual." And, you know, he wrote the song and played it to me. And I said, yes, it sounds great. You know, it sounds - but it really is. It's a passionate song because, you know, the man, as you say, actually kills the woman because she was unfaithful to him.

GROSS: Let's hear the song. This is another one of Tom Jones' hits from the '60s, "Delilah."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELILAH")

JONES: (Singing) I saw the light on the night that I passed by her window. I saw the flickering shadows of love on her blind. She was my woman. As she deceived me, I watched and went out of my mind. My, my, my Delilah, why, why, why, Delilah? I could see that girl was no good for me. But I was lost like a slave that no man could free.

GROSS: Is there a part of you during a concert that ever feels or ever felt, OK, enough with the panties and all that stuff; let's just, like, sit still and listen to my voice, listen to me sing?

JONES: Well, not so much sit still. But the trouble is with - you know, with the panty throwing, especially if you're doing a ballad, if you're trying to create a moment, you know, in a song, you don't want distractions then, you know? And panty-throwing is very distracting...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, right.

JONES: ...You know, especially if you're doing a ballad, you know? It's not too bad with uptempo stuff, you know, but it takes away from the music. That's the problem with it - you see? - because most of the people that are in the audience - I would say 90% - are there to enjoy the music, you know, and to enjoy what I'm doing on stage. Then you have a handful of people that want to try and be part of the show.

GROSS: Right.

JONES: And that's when the underwear-throwing starts.

GROSS: What was it like for you when this whole, like, sex image started happening? It strikes me as the kind of thing - you're in big trouble if you take it too seriously.

JONES: Well, even singing as a teenager, you know, when I sang in school, it would get a reaction. You know, that was my ace in the hole...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: ...As far as the girls were concerned, you know? I mean - so I knew that, you know, the girls liked what I was doing. So it was there from an early age. But it just - you know, when you get your first hit record, of course, then there's a big explosion, you know? All of a sudden, you're on television, and people recognize you in the street. And, you know, then it's much more - much intense - much more intensified because of the exposure that you're getting.

GROSS: So what are the dangers of taking it too seriously?

JONES: Well (laughter), I think you'd burn yourself out, you know, if you tried to live up to your reputation, you know? You couldn't do it, you know? I don't think so anyway, unless you were a Superman.

GROSS: Right.

JONES: But you have to understand why, you know? I mean, I know - or I think I do, anyway - that, first of all, you know, it's my voice because I was selling - you know, "It's Not Unusual" started to sell worldwide before people saw me perform it live. So it must have been the sound that I was making to begin with, and then the visual part of it came later. But you have to realize why. You know, it's like an actor, you know, in a movie. It's the same thing. It's exposure. You know, you have a lot of exposure, and people see you, and you have an effect on them. And you have to understand that and - you know, and get it and try to put it in the right perspective.

GROSS: OK, time for another song. Now, this is another one of your big hits, "What's New Pussycat?" And the really funny thing about this song - it's your big novelty hit, but it's written by the brilliant and very sophisticated songwriting team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

JONES: Yeah.

GROSS: So this was a theme for a movie of the same name. How did you get to sing the title song?

JONES: Well, Burt Bacharach wanted - which he told me, you know, when I met him - he wanted a big voice to sing the song because it was for a Woody Allen film. And it was a crazy movie, and it's a crazy song, really. So he said, I need a big, solid voice to make this legitimate. You know, it needs to be done with conviction and not - you know, don't sing it, like, lightheartedly. He said, if you do that, it won't work. You've got to really, you know, dig into it and make a serious job of it.

So that's why he asked me to do it - because he'd heard "It's Not Unusual," you know, and liked that. And the flipside of "It's Not Unusual" was a Burt Bacharach song called "To Wait For Love," you know, which was a ballad. So I don't know whether he - you know, he heard "It's Not Unusual" because he heard the song on the flipside or not. But he liked the sound of my voice, and he thought I would be - you know, I would be right for "What's New Pussycat?" And...

GROSS: How did you like the song?

JONES: Well, when he first played it to me, I didn't like it because I couldn't quite - because it's a very unusual tune, you see? It's - so he played it on piano, and he sang it to me when he was writing the music for the movie. He was doing it in London. And I couldn't understand it at first. It was alien to me to the stuff that I'd been listening to. So - and I told him so, you know? I said, I can't make head or tail of this bloody thing. So he said, well, look; I'll make a demo of it. So the following day, he went into the studio, and he made a demonstration record, just him and the piano, you know, doing it. And he said, live with it, and listen to it, and then hopefully, you know, it'll hit you. And it did.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Tom Jones' "What's New Pussycat?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT?")

JONES: (Singing) What's new, pussycat? Whoa, whoa, whoa, oh. What's new, pussycat? Whoa, whoa, whoa, oh. Pussycat, pussycat, I've got flowers and lots of hours to spend with you. So go and powder your cute little pussycat nose. Pussycat, pussycat, I love you. Yes, I do. You and your pussycat nose. What's new, pussycat? Whoa, whoa, whoa, oh. What's new, pussycat? Whoa, whoa, whoa, oh. Pussycat, pussycat, you're so thrilling, and I'm so willing to care for you. So go and make up your big little pussycat eyes. Pussycat, pussycat, I love you. Yes, I do - you and your pussycat eyes. What's new, pussycat?

BIANCULLI: We'll hear more of Terry's 2003 interview with Tom Jones after a break. Also, we listen back to our interview with Jacques d'Amboise, who was one of the most distinguished male stars at the New York City Ballet. He died last week at age 86. And Justin Chang reviews the new psychological thriller "The Woman In The Window." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's 2003 interview with singer Tom Jones. He became a pop star and sex symbol in the 1960s with songs like "It's Not Unusual," "Delilah" and "What's New Pussycat?" He has a new album of material titled "Surrounded By Time." Terry asked him about another one of his hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now I want to get to one of my personal favorites, which is the theme from the James Bond movie, "Thunderball." (Laughter) No, I love all those Bond themes. And this one is so - oh, it's so - what's the word I'm looking for?

JONES: Dramatic?

GROSS: Very, very dramatic.

JONES: Right.

GROSS: And it's very insinuating. God knows what it's actually about. I don't know if anybody's ever made - been able to make out (laughter) details of the lyric.

JONES: No. Well, Don Black wrote the lyric, you know? And I think he - I don't think he ever explained it, you know, what it was. It was just - you know, the words came into his head. And he wrote them down. And that's the way it came out.

GROSS: I almost laugh when I hear this record because, you know, there's a lot of big arrangements on your records. But in this one, I mean, the brass is really shrieking in the background. And there's all these, like, themes from the movie coming up. In - you know, in the arrangement behind you. And I was thinking, if all this was happening in real time, it would be hard to sing. I mean, it would be - it's, like, overpowering arrangement. You'd probably have to, like, stop and laugh almost.

JONES: Well, it's John Barry. You know, John Barry did - he wrote...

GROSS: The great John Barry. Yeah.

JONES: Yeah. Of course. He wrote the melody. And, of course, he did the arrangements. So I knew what to expect because of the Bond songs that had been done...

GROSS: Like "Goldfinger."

JONES: Exactly. "Goldfinger" was the same kind of song. And Shirley Bassey did that. And it was a male version of "Goldfinger," really, that I - when I did "Thunderball," you know, because Shirley Bassey is Welsh. And she has this big, powerful voice. And I think they wanted, you know, a male version of that, you know, for "Thunderball." So I was prepared for it. I knew what the arrangement was going to be. And I just had to rip into it.

GROSS: When I interviewed John Barry and we talked about "Thunderball," he said that, initially, they wanted the song to be "Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang." But the distributor of the movie thought, no. It has to be the title theme. The title has to be in the song. The song has to be called "Thunderball." So then the lyricist had to come up with, like, a lyric with "Thunderball" in it. And they all - (laughter) the songwriters seemed to not really know exactly what the song was about. But then they had to convince you to do the song. Well, I guess you were willing to do it.

JONES: Right.

GROSS: They asked you to do the song. And Barry said that you said, what's the song about? And he said, I don't know. Just go in the studio and sing your heart out like Shirley Bassey did.

JONES: Right.

GROSS: Is that your memory, too?

JONES: Yes. And he said, and at the end, there's a high note. And the arrangement goes on for quite a while. So he said, try and hold the note as long as possible. So I did. And I closed my eyes. And I held the note for so long, when I opened my eyes, the room was spinning...

GROSS: (Laughter).

JONES: ...You know? It was - (laughter) but I did it, you know, because it's - you know, that's the way it is. But you're right, you know? He said just - you know, don't read into the lyric. Don't try and figure out what it is. Just - you know, just learn it and sing it. And so I said, fine.

GROSS: Well, good job. (Laughter) Let's hear "Thunderball."

JONES: OK.

GROSS: This is Tom Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THUNDERBALL")

JONES: (Singing) His days of asking are all gone. His fight goes on and on, and on. But he thinks that the fight is worth it all, so he strikes like thunderball.

GROSS: That's Tom Jones singing "Thunderball," one of his hits. You, as we've discussed, have this very swarthy image. When you were young, you were in bed for a year. You had tuberculosis. How did a year of...

JONES: Well, it was two years.

GROSS: Two years? How did two years of being sick - and you can tell me how old you were because I'm not sure.

JONES: Yeah, 12.

GROSS: Right. OK.

JONES: I was 12 to 14.

GROSS: Oh, just as your voice is changing, too, huh?

JONES: Well, yeah, going through puberty, too. I mean, that was...

GROSS: Boy, that's a lot to go through at one time...

JONES: Exactly.

GROSS: ...Particularly for a singer.

JONES: To be locked up, you know, and at that age is - (laughter) you know, seeing the girls playing in the street and not being able to go out is - not only the girls, I mean, all my friends. But, you know, that's when you start to notice girls, really...

GROSS: Right.

JONES: ...Is at that time. So it was a very frustrating time for me.

GROSS: Well, how'd it affect your life to be sick for a couple of years, years that are turning points in every child's life?

JONES: Well, another thing was they told me that I shouldn't sing, you know, because I couldn't - I shouldn't do anything that - I couldn't put any effort into anything, you know? I couldn't do anything physical nor physical activity. So I turned to, then, drawing. You know, I used to sketch a lot and paint a lot when I was a kid. So that's what - I put my talent, you know, into that. I had to do something to express myself. So I did a lot of sketches. But that was the terrible thing was not being able to sing. But it was one - it did teach me a lesson, though, you see? Something good came out of it, and it's not to take - to not to take life for granted because, you know, when you can play in the streets or you can play in the hills, you know, in Wales, most kids just take that for granted.

But when you - when it's taken away from you and you're bedridden for two years, it's - I thought to myself then, when I get out of bed, once I can play again, you know, with the kids and I can go wherever I want to go, I'll never complain about anything else as long as I live. And that's - you know, that's kept me - I remember that. I remember being bedridden. And so that helped. It helped in a certain - and another thing, it stopped me going into the coal mines, because in Wales at that time, you see, a lot of people were going into - my father was a coal miner. And maybe I would have become a coal miner. But because I had tuberculosis, you know, on the lung, the doctor said, you know, you cannot work in a coal mine. So that was a blessing in disguise as well.

GROSS: Did you see singing as an alternative to the mine world yourself?

JONES: Well, no. Singing to me was a very natural thing to do. I wasn't thinking that it would sort of get me out of Wales or anything. I loved living in Wales. But it was a thing that I - singing was a thing that I loved to do. And I did think to myself when I was a child, you know, I thought, if I could do this as a profession, this would be fantastic. You know, this is what I want to do, not to do - you know, have to do a job of work that you don't like, you know, in order to make money, which most people have to do, in order to survive. You know, I thought, if I could do this - you know, I have a gift here. And if I can - if I could do it as a profession, then that would be - you know, that would be it for me. And thank God it turned out that way.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

JONES: That's OK. My pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Tom Jones recorded in 2003. His new album, "Surrounded By Time," entered the U.K. pop charts at No. 1. Coming up, we remember dancer Jacques d'Amboise, who began dancing with the New York City Ballet at the age of 15 at the invitation of George Balanchine. And Justin Chang reviews the new film starring Amy Adams, "The Woman In The Window." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN'S "ACROSS THE CRYSTAL SEA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.